By Jeremy Kinsman, University of California and Ryerson University
Jeremy Kinsman will be speaking at the CIPS panel ‘Is Democracy Rising or Receding?’ on February 14, 2014.
From its inception in 2007, the international project A Diplomat’s Handbook for Democracy Development Support (now in its third edition) has produced a fact- and interview-based account of ways in which democracies have been able to contribute to other countries’ successful democratic transitions, especially through the activity of diplomats in the field. It uses country case studies to illustrate relatively successful and unsuccessful transitions, from Chile, South Africa and Tunisia to Belarus, China, Russia and Zimbabwe. It also charts changes in diplomatic practice toward public and ‘expeditionary’ diplomacy that have accompanied the shift in international relations from state-to-state towards greater trans-border engagement of civil society networks.
Apart from remaining interested in the lives of others while recognizing that in each situation change must emerge from the society in question, democracies need to maintain dual tracks in their relationships, directly advocating acceptable behavior on human rights while pursuing strategic and transactional partnerships.
Over the course of the project, the inquiry took on a more normative character in attempting to identify the hallmarks of successful democratic transitions. Case studies on Tunisia and Russia from 2013 illustrate the importance in Tunisia’s experience of an inclusive revolution in which there are no victors and no vanquished. Russia’s exceptionally extreme and vexed transformation, for which there was no template, revealed the inadequacy of theories to guide changes that were more behavioral than process-driven. Such changes require both time to build social trust and sustained outside support (a challenge that has also faced Ukraine).
The book’s publication comes at a time when prospects for democratic transition appear to have dimmed. The Arab Spring’s initial euphoria has faded in face of evidence that pluralistic Arab societies were largely unprepared for inclusive democracy. Nonviolent civil resistance in Syria became hijacked by an armed uprising favouring the dictatorship. In China, a regime initially hoped to be reformist has cracked down on dissenters. In Russia, divisive patriotic nationalism abuses civil society and its solidarity with like-minded outsiders.
The democratic ‘West’ has become more inward after its economic train wreck, which possibly also boosted the superficial attractiveness of China’s alternate narrative. Worn down after a decade of costly and less than successful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Westerners now distrust the ability of outsiders to affect others’ traditional cultures in more democratic or inclusive directions. Meta-values of human rights have been downgraded in the foreign policies of some democracies.
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An exclusive focus on darker trends would, however, obscure the extent of positive change taking place. The Arab Spring showed that no region is immune to the wish of people to have the agency over decisions affecting their lives. This wish is being asserted almost everywhere including in China and Cuba, where elements of procedural democracy are avidly sought even if electoral democracy remains remote. Demands for dignity, justice, and accountability gain in resonance.
The requirements for existing democracies are multiple. Apart from remaining interested in the lives of others while recognizing that in each situation change must emerge from the society in question, democracies need to maintain dual tracks in their relationships, directly advocating acceptable behavior on human rights while pursuing strategic and transactional partnerships. Consistency is vital—which means avoiding silent backing for highly authoritarian leaders who offer support for larger causes such as the ‘war on terror’.
Whether a new ‘concert of democracies’ is to emerge is a key question. If it does, it should include the major newer democracies such as India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa in order to have the legitimacy needed to sustain influence over outcomes. International civil society should participate alongside democratic governments, which must in turn defend civil society’s ‘right to assist’ as a function of international democratic solidarity.